Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lessons in starting a software project

This article presents my thoughts on DOs and DONTs of starting a new software project. Many lessons listed in this article are already well known or common sense, but usually not always followed!

  1. Brainstorm often: During the initial phases of software growth or even before starting to write a single line of code, you should do several sessions of brain storming. It could be on validating your idea, figuring out competition, predicting the future, picking a programming language, potential learning, etc. This is the difference between carefully planned birth versus unexpected pregnancy. Just because you can write some software, should you? Especially if better alternatives exist?
  2. Use good version control system: Even for the most trivial projects, you should try to use version control system. I like SVN (subversion) for my open-source projects, but if you can afford git, it works better for complex project management. If you are starting an open source project, consider code.google.com for hosting your SVN repository -- it is fast, simple and hassle free. It is like a good home for your baby software.
  3. Document all ideas: When the software is evolving you will have many ideas for new features, doing things differently, or incorporating competing features. Obviously due to lack of resources and time, you won't be able to incorporate all these. But you must document all the ideas, and if possible prioritize them. Keep a single list of ideas. Usually the software will evolve on its own to attract new features. Implement only the most crucial ideas and features, and resist the temptation to add many features.
  4. Few developers during growth: Keep the core set of excellent developers to one, two or at most three when the project is growing. Every major piece of software should have only one excellent developer. This avoid unnecessary friction and induces feeling of ownership. Software is like a baby, which needs a good parent to raise and grow, before it can mature and face the world. You wouldn't want to raise your software in a foster house where nobody feels ownership, i.e., in an organization with an engineering "team".
  5. Pick the right language and tools: Every programming language has some strengths and weaknesses. Make sure you select the right language, that is quick to develop with and maintain, and works well for your target application. For example, with low-level C/C++ you get performance, and with high-level Java, Python, you get portability. Over the years I have liked Python for most of my applications. Unfortunately, in corporate environment, Java is the pet-child because there are many fold more software developers and managers who know Java well. For modern Internet and web applications, Python, Ruby, Erlang and ActionScript are becoming more popular.
  6. Include testing and defensive programming: To be successful, sooner or later your software project will need to get out of the demo-mode and face the real world. It might become too late at that time to worry about scalability or glaring bugs if those involve redesigning your software. It saves a lot of time and energy to use common techniques such as good logging, unit testing, performance best practices, and defensive programming from day 1. Also maintain an issue tracker and log even the tiniest of issues with your software. Sooner or later you will need to address them.
  1. Don't procrastinate: If you have an idea to work on, don't procrastinate. Just get started, write something up, try to get a prototype going. Most successful projects need a complete re-write at least once. So don't be afraid to write throwaway code. 
  2. Don't document before coding: While software engineering people will say that you should follow good software process -- writing requirements specification, design document, test cases, etc. -- those can be written later too! Source code is what makes or breaks a software. You can write detailed specification and design documents, after you already have a prototype and want to document it or propose a change. In my experience, any design document written before writing the code is incorrect, and needs to change drastically after the source code is written.
  3. Don't spend time on one-off items: For your software, there are some items which are directly related, and then there are one-off items. For example, for a VoIP client, the protocol implementation, good voice quality, etc., are directly related. On the other hand, having a user signup page, instant messaging text chat, file sharing, etc., are one or two-off items, which are not directly related, but indirectly assist users in VoIP. When you start a project, do not spend time doing one-off items, but work on directly related items first.
  4. Don't wait too long for 1.0 release: There is 80% difference between an 80% complete software and a released software. When you formally release your software, you have to take care of user manual, getting started guide, installer as well as finish those last annoying bugs. In the case of software projects, it is very easy to get started but very difficult to put an end. There is always an endless list of features which needs to be completed before the release, and hence your release never happens. Unless, you make it happen. You will have to make a firm decision about what bugs are important and what can remain as known issues for version 1.0.

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